At just 23 years old, it’s tempting to label Jamaican artist Koffee as the next one up; the latest from a seemingly endless production line of Jamaican talent. Well, 23-year-olds aren’t regular fixtures at the Grammys, the most prestigious musical award show east of the Greenwich meridian. Most haven’t secured a win for Best Reggae Album at just 19, becoming the youngest-ever winner, for their debut project. Her meteoric rise is as astounding as it is unprecedented.
Born to a single mother, Mikayla “Koffee” Simpson, was raised in Spanish Town, St. Catherine. To this day it’s an area where you don’t want to be caught outside after a certain time. “I was aware of curfews and shootings growing up, but it wasn’t necessarily a reality for me. I didn’t experience anything directly,” she explains. Koffee credits her mother – an actress, teacher, and advocate for sex and body positivity – with sheltering her from the brunt of their reality.
That’s not to say she grew up oblivious, you need only listen to the lyrics to Blazin from her debut EP Rapture where the then 18-year-old artist criticizes the government’s lackadaisical attitude towards violence and homelessness in Spanish Town and similar communities. “With a lot of my music, it’s about entertaining people while highlighting problems to try and finding a solution. I genuinely want to make the world a better place,” she proclaims.
Like many Black artists around the world, her musical journey began at church on Sundays. She credits her time in the choir with learning the basics of melody and harmony. At 12, she taught herself how to play the guitar. Inspired by, now one of her peers, Protoje, she’d scribble lyrics down in notebooks, building verses, choruses, and eventually entire songs. All steps to an artistic career, but according to the woman herself, music wasn’t necessarily in the cards for her.
“I was definitely pleasantly surprised, because I didn’t plan to be an artist all my life. But, I’m more so grateful than surprised by the magnitude of reception, love and just opportunities that I’ve been able to see since then. It is vast,” she told the Jamaica Observer. A series of serendipitous events thrust her into the limelight.
In 2016 Koffee, still in high school, was pushed by her friends to perform at a talent show audition. She cleaned up. Confirming to herself what her friends already knew, her talent was undeniable.
In 2017, she recorded a musical tribute to Usain Bolt, the greatest sprinter of all time. The man himself shared it, putting her on the map. She followed this up with Burning, her contribution to the “Ouji Riddim” that was making the rounds at the time. Burning dominated the airway, a confident track that showcased all of the young artist’s strengths – her songwriting chops, the way she’s able to seamlessly shift from a machine gun flow to dulcet singing – it announced that she was here to stay.
Icons within the industry took note. Coco Tea brought her on stage during 2018’s Rebel Salute. Protoje, one of her influences, insisted she perform with him. Even Chronixx, another progenitor of Jamaica’s new school reggae movement, invited her to perform on BBC’s 1Xtra Radio show.
In the build-up to her debut EP, “Rapture,” she released “Raggamuffin” in January of 2018, a fast-paced, upbeat track that effortlessly swings from reggae-rap – made popular by the likes of Jr. Gong – to the rocksteady easy going chorus bringing summer vibes months early.
If the Bolt tribute garnered her national interest, and the endorsements from reggae royalty cemented her as the next breakthrough artist, then the “Rapture” EP was a statement of intent. Under 16 minutes, all killer, no filler, the project catapulted her into superstardom with a Grammy win to cap it off. To date, Koffee is the youngest artist to ever win the coveted Best Reggae Album Award.
Talking to Koffee, you’re immediately struck by how down-to-earth she is. At just 23 she’s achieved more in her career thus far than most will in their entire lives, but she speaks with a self-assurance previously unheard of in someone this closely removed from the throes of puberty.
“Music is a service, it’s mainly about finding who can benefit the most from what you’re creating,” she explains over the phone when asked about her drive. She takes the role of an ambassador for reggae music seriously and crafts music as if it were a prescription.
Her follow-up project and debut album “Gifted” is noticeably more relaxed than “Rapture.” She assures me this is intentional. Globally, society is emerging from years of isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Gifted” is Koffee’s gift to the world. A breezy album that dips and dives into politics, love, and most importantly having a good time.
She opens the album with “x10”, celebrating her blessings with an atypically slow cadence over a beat interpolated with reggae icon Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” It’s a fitting tone-setter for an album where she shouts out everyone even ending “Lonely” – ostensibly the love song on the album – with “Do this for my brother, my granny and my mommy.” On “Defend”, a Kendrick Lamar collaboration in which he takes a backstage role, she leaves something for the fans of “Rapture” spitting for 57 seconds on police brutality, poverty, and violence in communities.
“In my heart, I didn’t want this project (Gifted) to be too heavy,” she said. “On Rapture, the songs are more political, but this one (Defend) is short and simple, and represents for the fans that love that vibe.”
Fans are eagerly awaiting any sign of new music. Koffee recently appeared with Canadian performer Jessie Reyez as featured on Sam Smith’s “Gimme.” The club banger represents a departure from the style of music we typically associated with Koffee, but possibly hints at the young artist’s continued broadening of her musical horizons.
Earlier this year, Koffee wrapped up a tour with UK artist Harry Styles, which took them across South America to stops in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, ending in Brazil. “Gifted” was nominated for Best Reggae Album at the 2023 Grammy Awards.